Arthur Selbach (58) is an old hand at Westend61. He already signed his contract with us back in 2004. Having started out as a fashion photographer he then began to focus on travel photography in the early 1990´s. Today he is one of the most renowned travel photographers in Germany. Among his clients are publishers such as Merian, Mair Dumont or Gruner & Jahr.
What he learned from fashion photography which is also suitable for travel photography, how he became a stock photographer and why his images at Westend61 went on a boat and rafted down Zambesi River – all of that we talked to him about.
Dear Arthur, you had your start in fashion photography. How did you get involved in travel photography?
I actually learned with an architectural photographer, fashion came right after that. Back in the beginning of the 90s, I took some trips to Cuba, with my 6×7 Pentax. The people there were very open to photographers and I converted my whole portfolio with the resulting images, which were mostly in black and white. Then I took my portfolio to editorial offices, without any other expectation than simply to see what they’d think of it. The portfolio was well received and I immediately got bookings, at first from Lufthansa magazine, then later from Merian and other magazines. The art of photography was a new experience for me and I remember that I approached it in a very spontaneous and emotional way. Of course, I wasn’t used to traveling alone at all, so for the first trip I took an assistant along with me.
Is there something you’ve learned in fashion photography which you would no longer want to do without, something which aids you as a travel photographer?
Fashion photography had a formative influence on me in regard to interacting with people, and that made my life considerably easier in the time afterwards. For several weeks, I would be together with 6 to 10 people every day, almost like a family. That’s how you learn to get along with everyone.
In my opinion, you are one of the best German travel photographers. Your images whet one’s appetite for the places you photograph and above all you have a recognizable style. You apply the most diverse colour filters and often use long exposures. When you began doing this, you were the only travel photographer who was interpreting images in this way, yet now there are many others who have copied this approach. Does this bother you?
Thank you, Gerald. No, it doesn’t bother me, and I couldn’t prevent it, either. There are always photographers who find a style and shape it. Even at my first agency, laif, there were people who began a short time later to interpret my style for themselves. That annoyed me somewhat, but in the end, no one really cares about that and you have to just live with it. It’s going to always be that way. Of course, we all learn from each other, but nevertheless, it’s extremely important to create your own style. If you go with your tripod in the evening to the Mirador San Nicholas to photograph the Alhambra from there, you have probably 60 people there, 10 of them with tripods, basically photographing the same thing as you are. So then it’s not even enough to get out the filter, because there are already two others using filters. So you have to find another way to stand out, to set yourself apart from the others by doing something different, finding a different angle. Photographing, for instance, from the tower of the San Miguel Church instead, but you can only go up into the tower if you’re really insistent with the priest and can convince him that you have to get up there now.
Only then will you have the image you want, an image which nobody else has, and in your own style to boot. On the other hand, the long exposure time has meanwhile become a staple for very many photographers, and is a fundamental style element which, especially in landscape photography, brings a lot of calmness into the image. The filters, well okay, that started for me in the analogue days – today you can also manage that with Photoshop. I worked with that style for the first time in Cuba in 1991, and I was surprised at how well it sold.
You work for many famous travel magazines, such as Merian. How many countries has your profession already brought you to?
I probably got to visit the most countries while I was doing fashion photography, but by doing magazine photography I got to visit many other countries, too, so I’d say roughly about 80 or so. Unfortunately, editors tend to prefer locations with shorter travel distances, so I no longer travel to far away countries as often as I used to. Ten years ago there were destinations like South Africa, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Tanzania, Botswana, or Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, etc. Now, there’s more on the European continent, or sometimes Canada, North Africa. The Germans have discovered their own country as a holiday destination. The 17th Federal German state, Mallorca, is right up there with the best-sellers.
As a travel photographer, you immerse yourself in many different cultures. Do you have a story from one of your trips, one which particularly moved you and which you consider unforgettable?
Cuba was always very intense – the people, the atmosphere, the light, simply everything. The first two trips to Cuba I took with my wife. On the first trip, we met a painter. Through him, we were really submerged in Cuban life; we spent most of our time with Cubans in private apartments and houses. For the second trip, we’d decided to bring all types of things to wear – shoes, clothing, all kinds of stuff which we had a lot of, but these people didn’t have at all. We got together a lot of stuff. One year later, on the day we were departing, there we were at the airport counter, with 120 kilos of luggage. Although we had tickets, the airport in Cancun didn’t want to let us board because we had too much luggage, we should have to pay about 300 German marks more. After a lot of yelling and arguing, we managed to get to Cuba with everything, without having to pay extra. Our friend, the painter, picked us up when we arrived in Havana. Late in the evening, a handful of neighbours stopped by, and then they called everyone on the street together and they truly divided up the items we’d brought amongst themselves. Not one of them would have taken two pieces from the hundreds of items for themselves. All of these clothes, they weren’t anything special for us, but I’ve rarely seen so many happy faces as I did there. That was something that really impressed me a lot.
There are a lot of people who believe that being a travel photographer is the absolute dream job. Travelling to many countries, doing what you love best, namely photography, and earning money while doing it. Is that really as simple as it seems?
Well, that could be the case, if the trips are on assignment for an agency or an editorial office. To completely cover the costs yourself for a trip, with the intention of recouping your funds later with the images captured while you were there is a very difficult undertaking. Only with photo agencies can you barely generate enough. That’s why I would suggest doing research for a story before the trip, something which you can represent photographically when you’re on location. A story centred on a figure. A winemaker in the Provence, an oyster farmer on Sylt, a lift boy in The Plaza Hotel in New York – whatever it is, it should be a story that conveys something personal about the life of the protagonist. At any rate, this type of story is suitable for placement in its entirety in a newspaper, a magazine or as an online piece. Stories are always being sought, and there will always be takers for thematically appealing or exciting stories. With individual images it’s much harder. Documentary photography of travel destinations is totally out, too. However, it’s a different situation for atmospheric images taken in early or late light, just like Westend61 always tells its photographers. That always works well. Such images even allow you to elaborate on your own style with colour changes or filters, and I believe having your own style is important. In analogue photography, you used different types of film for that. In the 1980s you could practically recognize every fashion photographer by the colour tones used in their images.
You’ve been involved in stock photography for quite some time. We’ve already known each other for a long time now, and many years ago you’d said that with the new digital cameras everybody can create a good stock photography image. It’s no secret that travel photography has been heavily hit by amateurs, with a drop in prices which has become pretty bad in recent years. How do you deal with this?
Actually, almost every amateur photographer is able to produce good images nowadays with camera software which has become very sophisticated. You can go through the websites of well-known or good photographers like a giant department store, and you can pick up a lot of ideas and inspiration. That fills up the market. Yet even in the past, photographers took scenes from magazines and recreated and re-photographed them, similar to the painters in the Louvre painting the works of the Old Masters to reproduce them with an identical level of detail. It’s both educational and legitimate. Everyone started out that way. Plus, everyone can find their way very easily to a photographic agency today. So there’s a highly competitive market overflowing with good images, particularly in the branch of travel photography. Especially in such a situation, only a good photo agency can help, and all Westend61 photographers know this. I know a lot of photo agencies and have been at some of them myself. Many have fallen by the wayside, while some still don’t have a conclusive concept. In essence, the rules for successful stock photo promotion are simple: The right agency, image material which is carefully selected, rich in variety and which features your own style. And you shouldn’t forget about having an eye for the visual concept, either.
How is stock photography different from your assignments?
In the beginning of 1994, I went to the photo agency laif in Cologne. At that time, it was a great little agency, doing “auteur photography”, as it was called back then. The photographers handed in stories which they had produced for magazines to be reused by the agency. All of the material. For us, the term ‘stock photography’ wasn’t relevant. It was purely reutilisation. Images were sold and sold again and generated a lot of money. I heard about stock photography for the first time in New York, in 1995. There was a subsidiary of a Japanese company called Photonica, and I had an appointment set up with the photo editors, initially out of curiosity. I mainly presented my Havana pictures, and the editors were really impressed. They gave me a contract there on the spot. Admittedly, my work had rather editorial origins, but that didn’t bother anyone – on the contrary: that meant an expansion for the agency’s material, which in effect they let the photographers produce for them. That was new for me and I didn’t understand it much. However, two or three years later, I tried to put myself more in the place of a stock photo agency and deliberately produced material for this purpose. At the beginning, it wasn’t much, because at that time I had enough assignments from editors. My involvement with Westend61 led me to think more and more about producing images purely as stock photo material. This was also prompted by the severe drop in sales at the conventional agencies dealing in reuse. Today it’s a mix, when I have the time I like to do pure stock photo imagery, which I solely and specifically produce for agencies. The difference when compared to my assignments is that here I have the freedom to shoot without set demands, however, that doesn’t mean that this requires less discipline.
As you know from our many conversations and also from our Community, in spite of all the declining prices, lifestyle photography has remained lucrative in recent years. You’re not a stranger to working with people in front of your lens. Could you imagine yourself once again switching your area in stock photography, or will you stay with travel photography?
I really wouldn’t label it switching areas. For me, it’s a rather fluid transition to working with people in photography. In my assignments, there are many subjects with people or with people around and many of these images are staged. It’s hardly possible without putting in this effort, because of specific lighting requirements, or because it’s necessary for the story that the image tells something itself.
Where did you go on your last trip and where will you go on your next trip?
My last trip was on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean. Cold, harsh weather with a lot of wind. Conditions which you don’t have any control over, conditions where such a trip becomes quickly taxing. But even here, you still have to deliver. A few very nice images did come out of the trip, though, and the client was very satisfied. The next trip? If I’m a little bit lucky, it might actually be Cuba.
Now for our last question: Why is Westend61 the right place for your images?
When I came to 61 Westend St. in Munich for the first time – it must have been in the beginning of 2004 – I met up with a few zany young people with totally wild ideas there. They were open, funny, likeable, and yet somehow determined. They had a vision. I liked that a lot and I ended up leaving behind a large box of 35mm slides. It was clear to me, that these three (at that time you were three) would do something with those images. The market was lukewarm and that offered up some opportunities. My images went on a boat and rafted down the Zambezi River. Pretty cool. My images feel good at Westend61, and I do, too.
Dear Arthur, thank you very much.